Besteiros Do Conto (Crossbowmen): Organization, abuses of power and irregularities during the reign of Dom João I (1385-1433)
Leandro Filipe Ribeiro Ferreira
e-Journal of Portuguese History: Vol. 12, No. 1, June (2014)
The aim of this paper is to examine an aspect of social life linked to one of the most important and original forms of military organization in the whole of Portuguese history—the besteiros do conto (crossbowmen). This research centers mainly on the royal documents issued under the rule of Dom João I, which made it possible to arrive at a series of perspectives illustrating the constant abuses perpetrated inside this militia, with attention being drawn most notably to the municipal offenses directed against the privileges enjoyed by the crossbowmen, the situations in which these men themselves committed abuses, and, finally, the attempts made to legally escape appointment to this military force.
Throughout their existence as a military force, the besteiros do conto (crossbowmen) played a fundamental role in the battles fought by the Portuguese Crown. This group of soldiers, recruited at the local level in the municipalities, was soon subjected to various attempts at regulation by the monarchy. It is believed that they first began to be organized in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries by Dom Dinis or Dom Afonso IV (Ferreira 1988: 185).
Armed with crossbows, these soldiers were endowed with a deadly accuracy3 and a highly destructive shooting capacity.4 The effectiveness of the weapon used by this military force was so frightening, that Pope Urban II condemned its use in 1097-99 (Barroca 2003: 140). Years later, the Second Lateran Council (1139) prohibited its use in battles between Christian forces (Barroca 2003: 140). The crossbow, and consequently its users, soon caught the attention of the Portuguese Crown,6 due to its great value in warfare (Barroca 2003: 140). It is therefore not surprising to discover that, after the militia of the besteiros do conto had been created, this “barbaric bow” was mentioned in a document issued by Dom João I, dated 1414, which expressly banned the export of arms and foodstuffs (such as bread, for example) to the Moors. Offenders were liable to corporal punishment, including even the death sentence (Chancelarias Portuguesas: D. João I 2004: 162-163, vol. III, t. 3, doc. 1078).
This military force was answerable to the monarch and its anadel-mor (commander-in-chief), who was appointed by the former. There was also another anadel in each municipality, who served as an intermediary for these high dignitaries; however, this captain was chosen from within the municipalities themselves. It was thus the responsibility of the municipal authorities (judges and councilors) to inform the anadel of each municipality of the name of the men selected for the position of besteiro do conto (Monteiro 1998: 63). Nonetheless, the Crown always attempted to intervene in this process, “invoking a failure to meet the relevant deadlines, fraudulent situations that needed to be corrected, or recruitments that urgently needed to be completed” (Monteiro 1998: 64).